The nature of truth has changed. From an era, where one looked at proof and evidence to discuss what was right and wrong, it moved almost seamlessly to one, where we look for news content that confirms our biases. From a world where people believed, “if it is in the news, it must be true” it has moved to a place, where most of us take what is offered in news with a pinch (and sometimes a sack) of salt. And, while a lot of this distrust has been created by those who want to offer lies as the new truth – – agenda setting by interested parties — much of the blame also lies with the media that is too busy running stories to figure if what they are running is verified and true. It is no surprise, therefore, that trust in the media is at an all time low. While the following figure is for western audiences, it is reaching the same stages in India.
Today, when we look at the mass news media, it is less about getting to know what is going on in the world around us, and how it impacts us, and more about listening to polar opposites debating each other, without any seeming conclusion or consensus on topics, or issues. And, there is a very good reason for this.
The Media is the 4th pillar of any Democracy – the other three being the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. But, unlike the other 3 pillars, the Media is also wholly and fully profit driven. The others, at least explicitly, do not state a profit goal. The media, however, owned by private corporate and facing a competitive marketplace has to deliver a three pronged goal – news that upholds democracy, increase their reach with audiences, and news consumption (and sharing). One of the three has to give, and invariably it is news that upholds democratic values that die a unsung death. It is far easier to consume what a Bollywood Star thinks of demonetisation, than figuring nuances of monetary and fiscal policy which more serious authors write about (whether pro or anti).
The media is given special concessions, across the world, because of it’s historical role in upholding democracy. In India this was in the form of subsidised rates for newsprint, cheap rents, land given, and tax breaks. It was given because of the belief that the media would perform it’s function – be the watch dog of the ‘system’ on behalf of the people. Ask questions that needed to be asked, and persist till they were answered.
However, that hasn’t been the case. For the last 20 years, big media has been running purely for profit – and not for any of the duties that it is supposed to perform. It’s owners are corporatised, and often run industrial projects in other areas. The media then becomes a vehicle that not only legitimises their excesses, but also gives them undue influence on issues of policy. For example, if a large builder owned a media house, what would be it’s stand on land acquisition. Similarly if a large mining company owned media interests, how would the media deal with tribals being displaced so that mining can proceed. With media companies taking stakes in start up ventures, in lieu of advertising, can you actually have a balanced analysis on the start ups and how they are performing. Finally, when politicians and political parties own news media vehicles, what kind of monitor do you expect the media to play ?
The media in India, has unfortunately become like a cop in a 1960’s movie. they turn up after everything is over, and asks inane questions like “why do you think it happened”, and ‘how do you feel about it’. A simple example, when 26/11 was in progress, the big media noise was on how the NSG was delayed in getting to Mumbai, because they had no airport space allocated to them. And, while it was a valid criticism, the role of the watchdog is to flag it earlier. A watchdog that barks after the thief has stolen your belongings is of no particular use. Unless we want to redefine the role of the media as the coroner, as opposed to the watchdog.
Right now, while mainstream media chases eyeballs, and puts out news to something below the lowest common denominator, to collect advertising revenue that is a few rupees per a million eye balls, the question is what is the future of news ? If your audience is sold at next to nothing, then the value of that audience is next to nothing. It is a bubble waiting to burst, and world over it has begun bursting. Newspapers that are chasing advertising revenues, keeping the cost of subscription fixed, are shutting down editions; digital only platforms that are putting out ‘me too’ news are figuring that the cost of consumer acquisition is so high, that it is neither possible, nor profitable even in the long run
I think at a very simple level it is acceptance of the fact that consumption of news has never been a mass audience activity. At any point of time in the last 100 years, the consumption of news was lower than the consumption of entertainment. To try and drive numbers without a focus on quality or veracity is something that news organisations are doing without check. It is this fakeness in news that is pushing consumers to pick out other things with similar sounding headlines.
The second thing is the concept of ‘balance’ in news. A balanced piece of news is where you take opinions from all stakeholders involved in that news and contextualise it in the overall story. For example, if you were talking about tribals being evicted to set up industries, there will be the tribal view, the political view, the economic rationale, the industrial rationals – so that the reader can make up their mind on what to think. However, if you run this story with only one perspective, then the story will be unbalanced. Look at all the stories that you have been reading, and ask yourself if you are getting the balanced view. An additional point to remember is that there are things where the concept of balance does not exist. For example, if you are discussing rape, then the counter balance to those who oppose rape, is not some one who talks about rape being a ‘natural’ occurrence in society. Or if you are talking about the age of the earth, your counter is not a religious fundamentalist who talks about the world being created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. , And, no, when we discuss the marvels of modern medicine, you cannot have a person discussing how an elephant head was transplanted on a human being before time began. These are good conversations in the privacy of your home, or in a party. But, without evidence, this is not news. Mainstream News media today, is crying about hoaxes. But, the problem is that they perpetuated and popularised those putting out the hoaxes, as experts.
The third thing is that everyone is not your audience. They never can be. ‘Who is your audience’ if you ask this basic question of anyone running a media set up, the response invariably will be 14+ (those over 14 years of age). from 14 to 94 is a lot of age cohorts. And, beyond age, there are interest cohorts. If you try and be everything for everyone, you most likely will end up being no one for anyone. Fix the audience you want to serve, and aim your content at them. There will be a spillover in terms of audience. But, that is a better than aiming for everyone and getting people who flit in and out of your site and content.
The fourth thing is don’t be afraid of charging money for your content. If you start giving things away for free, and expect advertising money to deliver your profits, then don’t cry if your serious content does not deliver. if your audience sees value in your content they will pay. If they don’t see value in your content they won’t pay. If your content is aimed at the lowest common denominator that is flitting in and out of your offerings, there is little or no engagement, and advertising money is going to start chasing engagement rather than clicks – sooner rather than later.
Finally, it is less about customer acquisition than customer retention. You can spend all the money you want on branding, marketing and getting the customer to visit you. The question is what next ? are they going to come back? and, the question that plagues the Indian news media – especially in a digital era . if your customer gets his or her news through their social media feeds, then how much are you willing to sacrifice for baiting the click ? Are you, as a media organisation, ubiquitous for all, or are you focused on your core audience and targeting your communication to them.
In 2017, i see the media, world over, debating all these, in some form or the other. I also don’t have much hope from most of the established players, who are selling kilos of eyeballs for next to nothing to advertisers. Where i see some glimmer of light is with those entities who have declared they will focus on quality, and get customers to pay (nominal amounts) for that quality. And, i see hope in newer entrants who have eschewed clickbait for quality.